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Why Is It Important to Take Your HIV Drugs?

    Why Is It Important to Take Your HIV Drugs?

    HIV is a virus that destroys the immune system. Left untreated, HIV infection can develop into AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), a condition where the immune system is too weak to fight off disease and infection. There is no known cure for AIDS. While those with AIDS have a life expectancy of three years, individuals with HIV infection can live long, healthy lives with proper treatment. This treatment currently takes the form of antiretroviral therapy (ART).

    Standard antiretroviral therapy (ART) includes a combination of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs to suppress the virus and stop the progression of HIV disease. Doctors recommend ART for all people with HIV as soon as possible after diagnosis regardless of CD4 cell count.

    How HIV Treatment Works

    HIV destroys CD4 cells in the immune system. With fewer CD4 cells, the body is less able to fight infection, as well as HIV-related cancers.

    HIV treatment stops HIV from multiplying, and this in turn means there is less HIV in the body. (The amount of HIV in the body is called the viral load.) This kind of HIV treatment is beneficial in two ways:

    1. With less HIV in the body, the immune system is able to recover and create more CD4 cells. Even with HIV, the body is thus strong enough to fight infection and disease.
    2. Because of a smaller viral load, the risk of transmission to other people is also lower.

    ART Reduces Transmission Rate

    ART is not a cure, but thanks to these HIV drugs, HIV stops multiplying. These antiviral medicines reduce the amount of HIV in your body. And as a result, ART reduces the virus load and significantly decreases the HIV transmission rate.

    HIV is transmitted through bodily fluids — blood, semen, vaginal and rectal fluids, and breast milk. It can be spread through vaginal or anal sex, sharing needles or tattoo equipment, breastfeeding, or in pregnancy (from mother to child). However if one’s viral load is consistently low enough so that it is considered to be “undetectable”, it is virtually impossible to transmit HIV to another person. Moreover, ART not only saves individual lives but also actually lowers the collective viral load of communities. This significantly reduces the rate of HIV transmission.

    ART Helps People with HIV Stay Healthy

    Aside from a lower risk of transmission, having less HIV (low blood virus levels) in your body helps your immune system to repair itself. By producing more CD4 cells (reconstituting the immune system to normal or near-normal CD4 cell levels), the immune system is once again able to repel many kinds of infections and cancers. Although there is still some HIV in the body, the immune system is still strong enough to fight off illnesses.

    ART is recommended for all people who are fighting against HIV, regardless of the period of time they have suffered from HIV and their health’s condition. If left untreated, HIV will attack the immune system and eventually progress to AIDS.

    hiv treatment

    Kinds of Antiretroviral Medications

    The main types of antiretroviral medications used for HIV treatment include:

    • Nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs) such as zidovudine (Retrovir), abacavir (Ziagen), and emtricitabine (Emtriva). These inhibitors prevent one of the enzymes that HIV needs to replicate itself in a cell.
    • Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs) such as efavirenz (Sustiva), etravirine (Intelence), and nevirapine (Viramune). These target the same enzyme as NRTIs, but with a different chemical structure.
    • Protease inhibitors (PIs) such as atazanavir (Reyataz), ritonavir (Norvir), and tipranavir (Aptivus). These stop the production of one component of HIV.
    • Entry inhibitors, which block the entry of HIV into CD4 cells. This kind of drug includes two small divisions. The first one is CCR5 antagonists (also called entry inhibitors), such as maraviroc (Selzentry). These inhibitors block CCR5, a receptor protein on the surface of CD4 cells (immune system cells) that the virus binds to in order to enter the cell. The second one is fusion inhibitors, such as enfuvirtide (Fuzeon), which also blocks HIV’s ability to enter CD4 cells.
    • Integrase inhibitors such as dolutegravir (Tivicay), elvitegravir (Vitekta), and raltegravir (Isentress). These block HIV from inserting its viral DNA into host cells.

    These antiretroviral (ARV) medications reduce the viral load, the number of viruses in your bloodstream. Standard antiretroviral therapy (ART) consists of the combination of at least three antiretroviral (ARV) drugs to suppress the virus and stop the progression of HIV disease. People with undetectable viral loads stay healthier and longer. Moreover, they are less likely to transmit HIV infection to others. The importance of taking HIV medication cannot be overemphasized. Thanks to this HIV treatment, those who suffer from HIV can lead long, healthy lives.

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    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


    HIV Treatment: The Basics, https://aidsinfo.nih.gov/understanding-hiv-aids/fact-sheets/21/51/hiv-treatment–the-basics, accessed July 23, 2020

    Antiretroviral Therapy, https://www.who.int/hiv/topics/treatment/art/en/, accessed July 23, 2020

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    Written by Vincent Sales Updated Jul 07, 2021
    Medically reviewed by Mike Kenneth Go Doratan, MD